6 Juniors To Watch at the 2021 U.S. Classic

Katelyn Jong

The junior competition at this year’s U.S. Classic starts tomorrow, and unlike previous editions of this annual qualifier to national championships, we could be in for a totally unpredictable ride.

Though there are many talented up-and-coming gymnasts on the roster, there are no clear “way ahead of the game” standouts who will dominate the competition or kids doing unbeatable senior-level difficulty the way we’ve seen in the past. Instead, the strongest group of athletes here are more or less on par with one another, meaning every routine will count.

I put together a list of the six gymnasts you should keep an eye on in Indianapolis, and then I’m also talking about the others who could threaten this group for podium spots. In no particular order…

Joscelyn Roberson

A gymternet favorite since she was a tiny child wowing people with her standing full on floor, Joscelyn Roberson of North East Texas Elite is now 15 and one of the best juniors in the country. Throughout her junior career, Joscelyn has been known for putting up massive scores on beam, but over the past year, she has done a tremendous amount of work to become a top all-arounder, finishing second at the Winter Cup in March before winning the most recent national team camp.

Joscelyn is still a pro on beam, where her difficulty is close to a 6.0, but she’s made her biggest improvements on vault, where she is hoping to debut a Yurchenko double in tomorrow’s competition, and on floor, where she has cleaned up her big passes – like a double layout and an arabian double front – to become one of the most skilled junior tumblers. Bars is a weak spot for Joscelyn, with even her hit routines not scoring super high, but her notable improvement there has been in her confidence.

Madray Johnson

13-year-old Madray Johnson is one of WOGA’s six gymnasts competing at the U.S. Classic this weekend, and she’s consistently been one of the standouts for the gym this year, coming in second at the WOGA Classic before finishing third at both the Winter Cup and the American Classic.

What’s most exciting about Madray is that all of her success has come with relatively low difficulty – instead of throwing big skills, Madray is all about being clean and consistent on every event, which has really worked in her favor this year. She may not be someone who looks like a big threat on paper, but she’s a kid who will always get the job done and she should be one to keep an eye on here and in the future.

Katelyn Jong

A national team member who made her international debut at Gymnix in 2020, 14-year-old Katelyn Jong was the bronze medalist at Hopes Championships in 2019, she topped the junior field at the WOGA Classic early this season, and she won beam at last month’s American Classic (please watch her routine here!).

Katelyn, who trains at Metroplex, is the most advanced junior in terms of her difficulty, with a pretty consistent level across all four events, competing a Yurchenko double on vault, a bars routine with major Russian vibes (she does a Chow to Pak, inbar half to piked Jaeger, and a full-out dismount), a standing full, punch front, standing layout stepout to two-foot layout, and a double pike dismount on beam, and she opens with a double double on floor. Though she’s had a few iffy competitions this year, if she hits, Katelyn has major podium potential.

Ella Kate Parker

A talented Hopes gymnast since she first appeared on the scene at just 10, Ella Kate Parker made a giant splash when joining the junior ranks this year, winning the all-around title at the Winter Cup. Now 13, Ella Kate – who moved from North East Texas Elite to Cincinnati Gymnastics last year – has the poise and confidence of someone much more experienced.

Beam is where Ella Kate truly stands out, with clean, solid, and lovely skills from start to finish. She’s also quite good on floor, where she has a piked full-in and a triple full, and though she vaults only a Yurchenko full and doesn’t have a particularly difficult bars set, she’s clean enough on both to score well, with her Ray, Pak, and double layout on bars incredibly tidy and precise.

Azaraya Ra-Akbar

I think Azaraya Ra-Akbar of World Class Gymnastics could be one of the long shots for the podium among those in this group, but she’s a tremendously gifted gymnast with tons of potential, and even if she doesn’t make it tomorrow, she’s definitely got the goods and should be on your radar for the future.

At 13, Azaraya’s difficulty is appropriate for her age, but with all of her routines at a 5.0 or under, it’ll be difficult for her to contend against the best in this group, but her foundational level is brilliant. A top level 10 gymnast prior to qualifying elite this year, Azaraya reminds me of Morgan Hurd circa 2014, when she wasn’t doing much, but everything she was doing was fabulous. Most impressive to me is her extension and amplitude on everything from her Tkachev on bars to her acro elements on beam, but she’s truly a total package gymnast and I’m excited to see her make it on the national scene.

Kailin Chio

The all-around champion at last month’s American Classic, Kailin Chio is a super solid high-difficulty competitor and one of the veterans of this junior field, having first qualified at age 11 back in 2018, a year after placing second at Hopes Championships. Now 14, Kailin has been to nationals twice, finishing 11th in 2018 and 12th in 2019.

Kailin is an especially talented beam gymnast, but she’s also the kind of gymnast who doesn’t have a true “bad” event, something that should put her at an advantage in this field. A Gymcats athlete for her entire career, Kailin has a Yurchenko 1½ on vault, she competes a super cool full-out on floor, and she has really nice lines on bars.

The Other Top Contenders

A number of additional gymnasts should also factor into the podium race at this competition, including national team members Charlotte Booth, Kaliya Lincoln, and Nola Matthews, as well as Ella Murphy, who was second all-around at the American Classic.

I don’t think anyone in this group will be a top threat this week, but you also can’t count them out. Kaliya has had a relatively weak season, but at full strength, the 15-year-old who left Airborne to train at WOGA when her family moved to Dallas this summer, should be one of the best juniors in the field. Both she and Booth do the Yurchenko 1½, which could give them an edge over others in the competition, and 14-year-old Booth is also notable for some of her front skills, like her double front bars dismount and her front double full on floor.

Matthews, a 14-year-old who trains at Airborne, has strong skills on beam and floor, with her triple full on floor a highlight in her arsenal of skills, and then Murphy, also 14, is another one of the top competitors in the WOGA pack, with a super clean and consistent beam set that makes her stand out.

Honorable Mention

I don’t see anyone not included among those I’ve already talked about challenging for the podium here, but a few others should catch your eye regardless of how they place. 13-year-old Tiana Sumanasekera of West Valley is a toe point, leap, and artistry queen, 14-year-old Lucy Tobia of Parkettes has an awesome Weiler half to toe on to Church to Pak on bars, and 14-year-old Paloma Spiridonova of WOGA is a tremendous performer with gorgeous leaps, making her one of my favorites to watch on beam and floor (she also photoshopped the Bernie Sanders mittens meme into a photo from the Biles Invitational making her my hero).

Paloma Spiridonova

Also competing are Sage Bradford and Avery King of WOGA (both are a little behind in difficulty but are lovely to watch), Zoey Molomo of Metroplex (one of the top juniors to qualify elite in 2020, but she hasn’t competed in the all-around in more than a year…though her vault and beam looked great at the WOGA Classic), Autumn Reingold of Gymnastics Olympica (a beautiful gymnast but another who isn’t competitive in terms of her difficulty), Izzy Stassi and Gabriella Van Frayen of Gym X-Treme (this is the first elite season for both after they were Hopes standouts in 2019), and Paityn Walker of Head Over Heels (I haven’t seen much from her, but she was a Hopes Classic all-around champion in 2019 who won her elite qualifier in 2020).

Notably absent from the competition is Levi Jung-Ruivivar of Twin City Twisters, who won the junior competition at the March national team camp to qualify to nationals.

About the Competition

The juniors will compete at the U.S. Classic tomorrow, May 21, beginning at 6:40 pm ET. The meet will air live on FloGymnastics, and we will be live blogging all of it here for those of you who are unable to watch.

Article by Lauren Hopkins


5 thoughts on “6 Juniors To Watch at the 2021 U.S. Classic

  1. Pingback: 6 Juniors To Watch at the 2021 U.S. Classic – SportUpdates

  2. I’m most impressed with Azaraya. True, the difficulty is not there yet, but the fundamentals are possibly the best in the field. Unfortunately, the field as a whole is less than impressive. She reminds me of Trinity, where she’s not doing a G level skill, but it looks like she could at any time.

    I will always take a 5.0DV gymnast with good technique, form, and general ease to her gymnastics over someone doing 6.0 skills that are ugly and look like work. Katelyn Jong is great with her difficulty, and I find her skills and combinations interesting…but the flexed feet, soft knees, shoulder angle for days, and hunched af give me memories of Kristin Maloney.

    One question though: Why Azaraya do two 2.5s? Is JR like 1996 where you can repeat a skill if it’s in combination?

    Liked by 1 person

    • From what I see on her Instagram, she definitely competes difficulty that is below her actual capacity. I have had an eye on her since her Hills days, she’s a star in the making. Just worried that she seems somewhat injury prone and the relationship with her dad/coach looks… intense.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, Azaraya looks like she found her way to the ballet studio! The dance connections are beautiful and a pleasant change from the aerobic slamming around so often seen today

      Liked by 1 person

    • Watching her on bars yesterday, I was like, WOW, no one has cleaner or tighter form than Azaraya. She definitely has skills in her arsenal that she’s not yet competing, but I’m glad they’re holding back and letting her focus on being clean for now. I think she has the most potential in this whole field right now.

      That floor routine was from a level 10 meet where the skill can repeat if in combination, but that’s not allowed in elite, even for juniors…I didn’t see a full elite floor routine from her, but the passes are likely going to be a little different from this routine. Unfortunately the elite qualifiers don’t tend to be broadcast, so this was the most recent video I could find that really shows off her ability, but it’s a level 10 routine, not elite.

      Liked by 1 person

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